The CAHSR-SNCF Bombshell

The most important HSR news right now is the recent revelation on the LA Times, strategically made immediately after the state legislature had voted to appropriate the required money to begin construction, that the California HSR Authority had brushed off an offer from SNCF, which came with funding attached, to take over and build the project. SNCF’s offer would run trains through I-5 all the way instead of the chosen route vaguely along State Route 99, bypassing Bakersfield and Fresno.

Stephen Smith, who’s talked to the same sources who spoke with the LA Times, says that SNCF was interested in either I-5 or a greenfield alignment just west of SR 99 that would serve Bakersfield and Fresno with edge-of-urban area stations, though I-5 was “the only alignment… that private backers felt was financially viable.”

Although in 2009 SNCF submitted a document proposing to build the project along the chosen alignment, serving Bakersfield and Fresno at city-center stations, the document is stamped “Do not circulate outside government,” and the source says explicitly that the HSR Authority had pressured SNCF not to say anything about alignments, and more recently rejected its I-5 (or west-of-99) proposal out of hand. The HSR Authority responded, brushing off some of the article’s concerns and raising what is essentially FUD: HSR Authority Chair Dan Richard made sure to mention the manufactured controversy over the fact that SNCF had been forced by the Nazis to help ship Jews to extermination camps.

I do not have any access to sources, confidential or otherwise, but at least some analysis of this can be made from public information. The key cost numbers the LA Times provided are,

The I-5 route would have been the shortest, fastest and lowest-cost alignment, with a price tag of about $38 billion — sharply less than the rail authority’s current route, which has been estimated at various times to cost $34 billion, $43 billion, $98 billion and now $68 billion.

The problem: the cost of the Central Valley segment is a sufficiently small portion of the cost that it can’t possibly make the entire or even most of difference between $38 billion and the current price tag. It’s unclear to me what $38 billion should be compared to – 2010 dollars or year-of-expenditure dollars, and the Blended Plan ($68 billion YOE) or the full Phase 1 ($98 billion YOE) – but the lowest number, the Blended Plan in 2010 dollars, is $53 billion, $15 billion more than SNCF’s proposal. I have asked what exactly the comparable Authority number is and will update when I get an answer.

In contrast, the Initial Construction Segment, which includes a large majority of the Phase 1 Central Valley segment (though not the most difficult part, through Bakersfield) is $5.2 billion in 2010 dollars (see PDF-page 15 of the 2010 business plan); the actual money appropriated is just over $6 billion, but if we’re doing YOE numbers then we must compare $38 to $68 and then the difference doubles. Since the cost of construction along I-5, although lower than along the chosen route with its viaducts and grade separations, is nonzero, we get that a relatively small fraction of the cost difference, perhaps a quarter or a third, is attributable to this design choice.

So if it’s not just I-5, what is it, and what can we learn from this? I believe the results should if anything make the HSR Authority look even worse than it already does in light of this story and its lackluster response. This is because it means the entire amount of money required to build to SNCF’s specs but serve Bakersfield and Fresno, at edge-of-urban-area stations if the cities object to the noise of trains through downtown (which at least Fresno does not), is a small number of billions of dollars. This means that if service to those two cities was the true dealbreaker, the Authority could have asked SNCF to change the alignment back to the chosen route or a greenfield route just west of it, and then demanded that Fresno and Bakersfield pay for the difference.

Fresno had been hoping to use statewide HSR money to bundle its own project of grade-separating the freight tracks through the city along the Union Pacific right-of-way. The poor relationship between the HSR Authority and Union Pacific dashed the plans to use its right-of-way where it is superior to the BNSF alignment. That said, the threat of being left out of the network entirely could have induced it to come up with money for this on its own; the segment of the project through the Fresno area is $1-1.5 billion. A downtown station in Bakersfield is more difficult, especially if one gets from the Central Valley to the LA Basin via the Grapevine rather than via Palmdale, but in Bakersfield there are some complaints about the impacts that a downtown alignment would cause, and at any rate even I-5 would come close to serving the urban area.

In addition, portions of the cost savings that do not come from alignment choice have to be attributed to superior cost control. Part of the difference between American and rest-of-world construction costs has to come from more mundane issues such as proper supervision of contractors, since the difference is large and persistent and remains in place even after one controls for such issues as the percentage of the route that is in tunnel. (For example, recall that the Tohoku Shinkansen extension cost $4.6 billion for 82 km, of which a third is just one long tunnel and another sixth additional shorter tunnels).

The other lesson we can learn from this episode is political, regarding cost escalations and strategic misrepresentation. Too many political transit supporters downplay the issue. LightRailNow claims that a cost escalation that occurs before construction starts is not a cost escalation, but just a more accurate cost estimate; Robert Cruickshank did not quite say the same when the 2010 business plan for CAHSR revealed costs had doubled, but came close to it by describing the plan as more careful and thorough. In reality, large bombshell reports shortly after money has been obligated are a hallmark of secretive, untrustworthy planning, precisely the kind likeliest to lie about costs.

The main problem with megaprojects is not the dollar cost. In the grand scheme of things, a lot of them can generate enough social rate of return, and sometimes even a purely financial rate of return; at any rate, even when they are cost-ineffective, they are a small proportion of total GDP. The problem is getting politicians to vote for them. This means that issues such as institutional inertia are in play. It’s harder to get people to rescind money than to get them to vote against spending money.

If the primary cause of cost escalations is unforeseeable challenges, then we will see them come in timed with engineering developments, contract awards, and actual construction. If instead it is strategic misrepresentation, then they will be timed to come just after major political hurdles regarding funding: the passage of a referendum, legislative funding, an electoral victory by a supportive politician. The California HSR bombshells aren’t quite this clean, but they come a lot closer to the outright lying hypothesis.


  1. Elizabeth

    I am personally quite offended at the attack on SNCF. Dan Richard knows full well that the head of SNCF America died suddenly in January of this year, leaving a wife and two young children. A contributing factor to his death may have been the marathon travel schedule he was maintaining, trying to address the holocaust concerns as well as continue to beat the HSR drum.

    Given that the individual who had invested the most time in getting a role for SNCF in California and the one who theoretically could have had sour grapes has been dead for 6 months, the spin that the Authority is putting on the story starts to seem absurd.

    My understanding is that SNCF never asked for anything on a silver platter nor expected it. They did genuinely believe that one way or another, designing a railroad without the expertise of someone who has actually run one, was bizarre.

    Their concept that system design should be based on trying to make future operations as successful as possible was at odds with the Authority’s maximization problem which was more about optimizing political support.

    • Alon Levy

      Personally, I think the attack on SNCF is simpler than that: the HSRA had really dropped the ball on this, and lacking any excuse needs to deflect. Saying something like “We believe service to Bakersfield and Fresno is non-negotiable, and SNCF refused to even consider even an intermediate route with peripheral stations” could be proven a lie. The Holocaust FUD can’t, because it comes from trumpeting a controversy that someone else had drummed up.

      Anyway, the response is even worse than the original charge. The original charge could have reasonable counterarguments – perhaps the funding wasn’t as forthcoming as the LA Times portrayed it as, or perhaps there really were alignment discussions and SNCF was the more intransigent party. Richard’s response suggests to me that none of those counterarguments is actually true.

    • Nathanael

      All the evidence indicates that Steven Smith, or the people talking to him, were outright lying. Did you notice what Robert discovered — that SNCF was asking for a revenue guarantee?

      Sorry, the evidence points towards this being a hatchet job by NIMBYs using SNCF as a stalking horse.

      • Alon Levy

        Not sure how much to believe the claim that SNCF was violating Prop 1A’s language – the same claim is made about I-5 even though it is false, and at any rate the various slowdowns are such that the Grapevine is about the only way to achieve the described travel times for LA-SF and LA-SJ.

        And not everyone who opposes HSR (or supports HSR but opposes the HSRA) is a NIMBY.

      • Stephen Smith

        If I’m being used by NIMBYs, they’re doing a very good job of covering it up – all my sources are people who have dedicated their lives (some compensated for it, some not) to transit. Please stop perpetuating the myth that the field is divided between pro-rail, pro-CHSRA folks and anti-rail, anti-CHSRA folks – there are a substantial number of pro-rail, anti-CHSRA people out there.

        In fact, many of the pro-rail, anti-CHSRA are so opposed to the CHSRA’s way of doing things because it antagonizes NIMBYs and others unnecessarily. Pacheco bothers PAMPA NIMBYs more than Altamont for obvious reasons, and 99 because it runs through a bunch of fields with valuable, hundred-year-old perennial crops – vineyards, orchards, etc. (not annuals like corn and other grains).

        • Adirondacker12800

          The hundred year old almond trees will be paid for. Or they are pissed off that they will have to sell their hundred year old almond trees for the going price of hundred year old almond trees and not what the land is worth if it sprouts a crop of McMansions.

        • Miles Bader

          “Pro-rail” says almost nothing—there are tons of subcultures, some wackier than others, which meet that description. I’ve encountered many who seem opposed to HSR in general, for no reason that I can discern other than it seems to not fit their romantic notion of what rail “ought to be.” Others are pro-transit but don’t like long-distance rail, etc, etc.

          Moreover, even if your “sources” are of the most upstanding sort, unless they were actually involved in the events, there’s a good chance they’re being used just as much as much as you are.

          The problem with the story you’re distributing is that it’s vague and unsubstantiated, and to be honest it “smells weird.” If someone wanted to spread FUD about CAHSR, this is a textbook example of how to do it.

          So until there are actual, substantiated, details, don’t be surprised if people react skeptically.

          • Alon Levy

            If someone wanted to spread FUD, wouldn’t they target a publication date that’s a few days before the vote rather than a few days after?

          • Miles Bader

            Not necessarily. I think the opposition thought they were going to win the vote, and seems quite plausible that this is FUD intended to maintain the “aura of doubt” surrounding the project that seemed to have dissipated to some degree following the vote (the vibe had changed to “cool, now we can finally start construction!”).

            Indeed, the timing seems very suspicious indeed, and is one of the things that “smells wrong”: this information could have been released any time, and if it really did come from people that had sincere but honest concerns about the project, they probably would have released it a long time ago. The odd timing suggests that it was done strategically.

          • Richard Mlynarik


            You’re a nut.

            Evil NIMBY obstructionists attempting to influence a vote that would kill the project to which they object do not choose to release information after a too-close-to-call vote.

            Your suggestion that something is gained by the evil NIMBYs through muddying the post-vote waters rather than by breaching the dam and emptying the lake in advance is, quite simply, insane.

            I would feel confident betting all of my assets that the people supplying the story wished to have it published before the vote it might have affected. One doesn’t need to know the identities or personalities to feel confident in drawing such a conclusion. Would you care to take me up on this wager, offering all your worldly goods in return? Man up!

          • Nathanael

            Heh. Richard calling someone a nut is indeed funny. Richard imagining that he understands how to run political maneuverings is even funnier.

  2. EngineerScotty

    It appears the Wiki page for “strategic representation”, which you link to above, has been deleted.

  3. Pingback: High-Speed Rail Whiplash « The Greater Marin
  4. lpetrich

    The SNCF proposal had a certain difficulty. While the CHSRA’s proposal is about 20% longer, it nevertheless goes to some sizable cities in the Central Valley. Serving the CV is not only good for getting more customers, it is also good politically. Central Valley inhabitants will be getting something for their tax money, something which cannot be said of the I-5 route.

    • Andre Lot

      They could actually build some satellite TOD cities around greenfield development perpendicular to access axes to the Central Valley cities, which would then get (20 years from now or later) cheaper medium-speed spurs connecting it to these stations.

      It could allow a lot of value capture of building new cities towards new stations along I5, with massive park-and-ride facilities built on the edges of such cities and some futurist technologies such as PRT to move people within them and to the HSR station.

      The function of these cities would be mostly satellites to SF and L.A., connected by high-speed rail (which negates the effects of sheer distance).

      • Nathanael

        This is a fundamentally terrible idea unless you’re a big fan of sprawl and gasoline.

      • Henry

        This sounds like some modernist disaster coming out of the 50’s. It’s been tried before, with negative results (although the PRT Is a new addition to the idea)

        • Miles Bader

          Of course, “PRT” is a disaster all on its own, so I’m not sure it’s a very good addition…

          • Andre Lot

            PRT is still not completely commercial-ready, but it solves the basic, fundamental problem of transit (last-mile access) while being very competitive with the car (24/7 availability, no scale problems).

            If we could come out with a system that operates on electricity, that doesn’t rely on an human driver to power itself, and that was much safer for everyone (pedestrians, passengers etc), then the whole argument against sprawl (“it’s auto-centric and runs on fossil fuels”) is rendered moot.

          • Alon Levy

            The problem is that the guideways are expensive. The reason sprawl works more or less is that cars scale down very well. PRT requires a grade-separated guideway, and this raises your fixed costs to rapid transit levels without providing rapid transit capacity.

          • Miles Bader

            No it doesn’t: In high-usage areas, it doesn’t have enough capacity, and in low-usage areas, the infrastructure is too expensive.

            In other words, it has the problems of cars (low capacity for the amount of space taken and resources used), but not their advantages (cheap infrastructure in low-usage scenarios).

            [and what you call “the whole argument against sprawl” isn’t: sprawl is also reviled for its dysfunctional social effects.]

            PRT is a bizarre libertarian fanboy dream for those who are dogmatically attached to “individualism” (haha) and hate the idea of mass-transit, but admit (only some of) the various problem caused by cars.

          • Matthew

            Cars don’t really have “cheap” infrastructure. Most people are just willing to overlook the cost as we subsidize them. PRT, of course, is much worse off.

          • Henry

            @Andre, the main argument against low density sprawl is that it requires exorbitant amounts in infrastructure investment for less (less bang for your buck) and that it creates an unfriendly pedestrian environment that ends up causing public health concerns because people don’t walk.
            PRT wouldn’t do anything to solve these problems – actually, it would probably make them worse, because PRT guideways would cost more than regular asphalt, and I don’t imagine that PRT guideways are aesthetically pleasing to look at or to live next to.

          • Andre Lot

            Today’s PRTs still require segregated guideways, but what about a PRT system that relied on some technology akin to Google self-driven cars? Their (Google’s) work on that front is really impressive (but shouldn’t: with current technology, it is conceivable to design a sensor system that can identify obstacles, pedestrians, exact position in a road in relate to other moving objects etc).

            So if we get a mix of PRT that can run on fixed guideways but also at 30-40 mph on regular streets, we could essentially solve this infrastructure-is-expensive problem.

            Moreover, any new technology that disrupts the status quo will have to deal with legacy problems. The introduction of gas lines, distributed electricity, sewage treatment, road and rail network themselves – they all faced similar issues of lack of backward compatibility, requirement of extensive infrastructure to be useful, impact on the already built environment and even social change (carriage drivers sudden became obsolete and lost their way-of-life, horses were brandished from streets in a matter of 2 or 3 decades after cars came in, the Pony Express was killed within months after completion of the first interncontinental rail link etc).


          • Nathanael

            Cars scale down well because they drive on dirt roads.

            Try that with PRT.

            Google may eventually get robot cars allowed, but I doubt they’ll ever handle dirt roads properly.

            Electric cars are going to happen regardless of anything and very soon.

            But, Andre, you’ve missed the bigger argument against sprawl: it *destroys agricultural land*, and it’s very expensive to convert housing back to good agricultural land. Even harder to convert industry back.

          • Edward

            Maybe this has changed over the years, but Wikipedia lists some cheap ways of guiding at-grade buses:
            Doesn’t that make PRT even cheaper than roads due to width savings?
            As for capacity, PRT should have greatly reduced headway with computerized coordination, right? Seems like a significant upgrade to cars after the software/planning costs, and it should work with much of the infrastructure in place. Why couldn’t a suburb just entirely use PRT?

    • Steve

      Remember, though, that the proposed SNCF routing has a lot in common with SNCF routings in France–they tend to link the two endpoint cities at the expense of smaller cities along the way (for instance, the first LGV, LGV Sud-Est, bypasses Orléans completely) and have greenfield–what Frenchmen like to call “potato-field”–stations serving two or more towns nearby. So the SNCF proposal is designed to a typical French standard.

      The LA Times article–or someone on the blogosphere–also indicated that the Japanese balked at blended-with-freight operations in the San Francisco Bay area, also precisely because the Japanese have no expertise handling this kind of operation (as an ERTMS rep recently pointed out to me, the Shinkansen is essentially a nationwide métro).

      • Nathanael

        It’s actually not designed to a French standard; apart from Paris, France’s cities are much smaller than California’s cities. The I-5 routing would make sense if the Central Valley cities were one tenth the size they are — and in France, the comparable cities basically are. I think whoever came up with this proposal never looked at California population statistics.

        • Stephen Smith

          It’s actually not designed to a French standard; apart from Paris, France’s cities are much smaller than California’s cities. The I-5 routing would make sense if the Central Valley cities were one tenth the size they are…

          Size ≠ transit catchment area. French cities may be small, but a huge portion of the population is convenient to HSR stations. Central Valley “cities”? Not so much – there’s been no walkable/transit-oriented development since before WWII, and what does exist “downtown” is tiny and decaying. And good intercity rail access just isn’t going to fix that (you need intracity transit to really encourage TOD).

          • BruceMcF

            But a transit catchment area and an intercity rail catchment area are two quite different things. All of Fresno is clearly in the catchment area for a train station that gives a two hours or less trip to either the Bay, the LA Basin or both.

          • Stephen Smith

            Bruce – I suppose for Fresno-to-somewhere else trips that’s true. But not for somewhere else-to-Fresno trips – once you get to Fresno/Bakersfield/etc., you’re going to have to rent a car, at which point you may as well just have brought your own. (This is a big problem in San Jose, too.)

          • Nathanael

            Except that it’s a lot less of a pain to rent a car in Fresno than to *drive from San Fransisco to Fresno*, which takes over 3 hours one-way.

            I have to rent a car when I visit Denver or Minneapolis. Doesn’t mean I *drive* to Denver or Minneapolis from Ithaca, because doing that is insanely unpleasant. That’s another order of magnitude of distance, but perhaps you’ll get the picture better with the exaggeration. Fresno isn’t close enough to SF or LA to be an easy, comfortable drive for a lot of people. I find two hours one-way to be punishing.

            Of course, you need to *have* rental cars co-located at the train stations. Is anyone making an effort to make that happen? It doesn’t happen at most train stations in the US, not even LA or Chicago.

          • Adirondacker12800

            There’s a Hertz office in Chicago Union Station.


            A quick google search for “Los Angeles Union Station Car rental” comes up with Budget right across the street. If someone wants to rent a car when they get to LA they can get off at Burbank, or someday in the future, Ontario and use the airport car rental agencies. For San Francisco they can get off at SFO….

          • anonymouse

            But it’s still much, much cheaper to drive to Fresno, compared to paying for an expensive HSR ticket, which is already likely to be more expensive than driving (but more convenient, so people might still do that). But also having to pay money on top of that to rent a car? With some generous assumptions, that at least doubles the cost of your trip, and it gets worse the longer you want to stay in Fresno.

          • Adirondacker12800

            It cost less in gas money, it’s not cheaper to drive.

          • Nathanael

            Adirondacker: the co-located rental car offices generally deliver you your car from an offsite location some distance away — and are often not open 24 hours. I’ve done this *frequently*.

            Rental cars at city train stations should be as easy as rental cars at airports.

          • Adirondacker12800

            They are closed many hours of the day because there isn’t much demand. Only the yokels rent cars just outside the Loop. People with some savvy trek out the airport where rates are much lower and the traffic is much better.

        • dejv

          Alon, what do you mean by “Shinkansen trains that share track with legacy trains”? I haven’t heard about anything like it before, just that they regauged existing line. Track sharing would require gauntlet track and I’ve seen no mention of it with connection to Mini-Shinkansen so far.

          • anonymouse

            There are places where Mini-Shinkansen trains run on regauged line sharing track with regular trains (Japan has quite a few standard gauge lines as part of the “regular train” network, completely apart from the Shinkansen). There are also a few areas with dual gauge, with Mini-Shinkansen trains sharing the track with regular narrow-gauge trains.

    • Alon Levy

      The entire point I’ve been trying to make is that people are too fixated on the I-5 issue. It can’t be a majority of the cost difference, and it’s a tiny portion of the route length difference. Skipping Palmdale is a much bigger time and money saver, and Palmdale frankly isn’t as important as Bakersfield and Fresno. Alas, Palmdale is in LA County and so the entire county guns for that detour.

      • BruceMcF

        Leading to the strategy of offering Palmdale its connection sooner to make up for it being a Rapid Rail corridor rather than an Express HSR corridor. It even addresses the cap & trade objections to funding a project that is not completed by 2020 if the state component came from cap and trade funds and the corridor was completed by 2017, same as the ICS.

      • Nathanael

        It’s true that a good political maneuver might be to build a fast regional-rail replacement for the Antelope Valley Line *now*, thus eliminating the LA County demand for a Palmdale HSR route and allowing the Tejon/Tehachapi choice to be made objectively.

        Of course once the fast regional line to the Antelope Valley is in place, the Tehachapi route is *obviously* cheaper….

  5. Tom West

    The SNCF proposal was cheaper because it bypassed so many major cities, where construction costs are much higher. It would also have got lower ridership because it missed those cities.
    The aim isn’t to link LA and San Fransisco as cheaply as possible – the aim is to maximise the benefits for the whole of California.

    I think CAHSRA was absolutly right to reject the proposal. However, given this, they should have made the proposal public, along with their reasons for politely refusing it.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      With an extra hundred billion dollars in the public finances, it’s possible some way might be dreamed up to serve the “major cities”, don’t you think?

      Put that good old American Ingenuity and Know-How and Stick-to-it-ness to work on the problem.

      • Nathanael


        There’s really no other way to serve the cities except with direct rail service, so….

        Offend twenty times as many farmers by building *more* gigantic concrete wyes, one for each Central Valley city, and then have all the complaints about the concrete viaducts coming downtown for each city *too*!

        Real brilliant!

        You are completely deranged, you know that?

        • Alon Levy

          High-speed junctions aren’t that difficult, and don’t involve concrete except at the immediate crossing. High-and-low-speed junctions are very common in France because that’s how it builds things. If the ROW is not very constrained, there’s space to have a track diverge away from the centerline (to the right in the US, to the left in France), and depending on the direction it’s supposed to go in either continue diverging or instead curve back and cross the mainline on an underpass or overpass. It involves a few overpasses if all lines involved are double-tracked but the cost of that is in the tens of millions, rather than in the billions.

          • Nathanael

            That’s only one side of the necessary junction, Richard. In order to serve Fresno, you need the other side for trains coming from the South, too. Try again!

          • Nathanael

            I don’t personally think the amount of land from a giant wye for Fresno is incredibly significant, but it does start adding up to more and more NIMBYs.

        • Adirondacker12800

          Yes, the 50 mile spur from I-5 to Fresno would be built without any taking of any land and be built by elves using pixie dust. Same as the spur to Bakersfield.

          • Alon Levy

            I don’t know this, but I thought the SNCF I-5 proposal was the same as the TRAC proposal, i.e. the spur is north-south along the San Joaquins (electrified, de-FRAed, etc.) rather than east-west from each city to I-5.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Then Spiderman is going to use Spidey skills to string the catenary and unless you want the San Joaquins from Bakersfield to meet the HSR train to San Francisco or Sacramento in Stockton there’s gonna be a spur someplace.

          • Stephen Smith

            Alon – I’m told both possibilities (east-west spurs & north-south San Joaquin spur) were on the table, perhaps leaning towards the latter.

          • Nathanael

            So, if the spur is “north-south along the San Joaquins”, we end up building along BOTH the I-5 route AND the SR-99 route.

            Will the silliness never end?

            The goal from the point of view of the politicians is to get the project built with the *minimum* number of NIMBY explosions, not the *maximum* number. These proposals are *stupid* when viewed in that light.

  6. anonymouse

    Even with the SNCF proposal, the Central Valley does gain something: a much higher speed link to LA. It wouldn’t be a complicated matter to build a connection between the San Joaquins and the new HSR line and either have a rail to rail transfer (to replace the current rail to bus one), or through running, possibly in the form of San Joaquin trains switching to electric traction and running at 125 mph on the HSR line to get to LA. Either way, it’ll be a big improvement from the current situation, and whatever the connection to the Bay Area is, it’ll be an improvement over the current line via Stockton and Martinez. Meanwhile, the current plan for the Central Valley segment is to build a shiny new HSR line and then not run HSR trains on it until the rest of the HSR is built, presumably leaving it to Amtrak, except that Amtrak would then have to kill service to the smaller cities in the Central Valley.
    And in terms of cost savings, there are big advantages to the I-5 alignment: there are fewer farms in the way, and almost no population at all (only two towns of 1500 each). Plus, since the HSR is legally mandated to only take 2:40 for the LA-SF trip, and the I-5 route is considerably shorter, that means top speed can be proportionally lower everywhere along the route. This means that California no longer has to have the fastest HSR trains in the world (everyone else runs at 300 or at most 320 km/h, except maybe a couple of lines in China), and also that there would have to be considerably fewer hideously expensive projects to save minutes of travel time in urban areas. Not having to build a whole new San Jose station or giant flyover from Willow Glen to Santa Clara alone would save hundreds of millions of dollars.

    • Nathanael

      The bad design issues in the San Jose area are entirely independent of the speed requirements. (This is an area where Richard M’s attacks are actually correct.)

    • Alon Levy

      This is where I don’t get the benefits of I-5 over west-of-99, other than fewer political complications with farmers. Both routes have no urban development. Both routes have a minimal number of grade crossings, all rural and cheap to separate, and could be done entirely at-grade. Farmland is cheap; the farmers shit bricks over infrastructure that serves the hippies, but vastly more rural land is lost every year to sprawl and nobody cares.

      The difference in route length is also much smaller than people think. Tolmach bundles the I-5 vs. 99 issue with the Grapevine vs. Tehachapis issue, where the route length difference is substantial and also the segment is slower, and this makes the I-5 vs. 99 travel time difference appear larger. At full speed, the 20 km or so of length difference between 99 and I-5 if you go through Altamont (a bit more through Pacheco because 99 is farther east there) is about 3.5 minutes of travel time difference. West-of-99 could potentially be marginally shorter than 99.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        I largely agree with you.

        But eyeballing a map (and that is ALL I’m doing), the number of required grade separations appears radically lower for Hwy 6 adjacent than for Hwy 99 proximate.

        And then there’s Fresno

        I’ve always advocated west-of-99, with peripheral stations (first phase) and loop tracks to central stations (selected subsequent build-out phases) for the Central Valley cities.

        But if people who had the real expertise and real cash and the real commercial cost/benefit pencilled out saw something in a starter bootstrap line out by Hwy 5, well …

        • Stephen Smith

          Check out the comment I left downthread (which you commented on, I think) – SNCF’s first choice was west-of-99 too, but decided on I-5 after they discovered PB’s meddling along the west-of-99 (at least I think that’s what he meant when he said “99”) route.

    • Stephen Smith

      And in terms of cost savings, there are big advantages to the I-5 alignment: there are fewer farms in the way

      Even the west-of-99 proposal (which I’m told is what they wanted originally, until PB started making it difficult…not sure what that’s referring to, though…) would have gone through farms, but they would’ve been annual crops, not 100-year-old orchards and vineyards along the 99.

          • Beta Magellan

            Or the principal-agent problem. Californians don’t know much about high-speed rail, so they can’t keep an effective check on PB’s over-designing (and, in the future, overbuilding) HSR.

          • Miles Bader

            This (the authority’s inexperience) seems like one of the principal problems with CAHSR, which is why having SNCF or JR or Spain or Germany [although maybe not China] in a major role would be so comforting. Those countries had a major advantage when they built their HSR systems, in still having reasonably competent passenger railroading establishments which were big enough to take on the role.

            Still, I’m skeptical that PB was playing the sort of explicit dirty tricks Richard is always blathering on at great length about (and Stephen seems to be implying). There’s ample room for them to screw things up in the name of profit without actually being evil…

          • Beta Magellan

            @Miles, over-design and overbuilding of transportation infrastructure—any transportation infrastructure, not just HSR or ever rail-related—is very common in American municipalities and states with a strong patronage culture and connected contractors.

  7. AlexB

    These things have to be decided on a case by case basis. France has built its system one way, the Japanese a similar but different way, and the Germans a very different way, all in response to their existing train routes and geography. The California “blended” approach that has been adopted is in many way more similar to the German way to developing its system: new rights of way combined with upgraded lines in more developed areas where new construction can be problematic.

    The French have tended to build their routes with the end cities in mind. For connections to intermediate cities, they connected the new rails to existing slower regional routes. For example, on the new route between Bordeaux and Paris, Orleans and Poitiers would only be connected via feeder routes. The actual HSR line follows the motorway which bypasses these cities. This would not work in the Central Valley. At almost a million people, Fresno needs to be connected to the system, but it would be very difficult to get from Fresno to the I-5 route.

    The meaning of Shinkansen is not “bullet train” as we call it, but “new trunk line.” The Japanese did not just have in mind a speeding up in service, but a new and independent set of infrastructure because their existing lines were at capacity and new tracks were required everywhere. While this is similar to the central valley route that effectively replaces the existing Amtrak service, CAHSR is now relying on upgrade to Metrolink and Caltrain tracks on the approaches to LA and San Francisco which have plenty of capacity to absorb the new HSR trains. I personally think the judgment of the CHSRA is sound based on Californian geography and the quality and location of existing infrastructure. Now, just because the route is well considered doesn’t mean I think CHSRA will encourage cost effective designs of the stations or track structure, which is another problem entirely.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      The California “blended” approach that has been adopted is in many way more similar to the German way to developing its system:

      I don’t know where people get this from. The use-existing-rail-lines-approaching-major-urban-stations approach is that used by everybody except Japan (1067mm) and Spain (1672mm).

      What is special snowflake special needs unique about California is the bat shit insane concept of running for over 80km in a constrained suburban right of rail (SJ-SF) when much cheaper and better and less constrained and faster alternatives exist.

      The “German model” you’re mis-representing is, roughly, one of building strategic mid-route sections of high speed bypass track connecting to existing well-developed heavily-used intercity trunk routes (which simply do not exist in California.) And I can’t help but note yet again that the highest average speed route in Germany is not a dedicated HSL, but the carefully and strategically upgraded (“Ausbaustrecke” not “Neubaustrecke”) Berlin-Hamburg line, along an 18th century alignment. Good engineering concerns itself with more than top speed.

      • Adirondacker12800

        concept of running for over 80km in a constrained suburban right of rail (SJ-SF) when much cheaper and better and less constrained and faster alternatives exist.

        And 50 of those 80 would be used by the alternative. There be suburbs along the alternative route too.

        • dejv

          Yeah but considering that apart from Bay Area and LA basin speed restriction, there will be other mandatory long “slow” zone – the climb to Tejon or Tehachapi Pass (2.5 %, ~44 or ~40 km respectively, ~200 km/h), the need to minimize every avoidable slow zone should be pretty obvious. Coupled with other benefits like actually helping Bay Area to north-of-Merced part of Central valley, minimizing total line-km of full system etc.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            80km of shared track = minimum of two overtakes of regionals (Caltrain) by HS service.

            50km = at most one, and that within 10km of the merge point, allowing for reliable “buffering” of entering HS trains on approach.

            Not that facts or logic or precedence matter to the dimwit from upstate NY.

          • Adirondacker12800

            50 km is 50 km is 50 km. So is the 15 km or so of suburban East Bay you would have to traverse. Unless by some unfortunate accident the East Bay has suddenly become depopulated.

          • orulz

            I agree with Adirondacker. Altamont makes sense because it makes the eventual connection to Sacramento better; however, I don’t really see how it benefits the SF-LA route much from a NIMBY avoidance perspective or an operational perspective.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Its almost as if people who advocate Pacheco/99 have never been to Santa Clara County or Fremont.

  8. Michael D. Setty

    I don’t understand the fixation on serving a few cities north of Bakersfield. With upgrades into Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles–via the Tejon route–all current cities served by the San Joaquins in the Central Valley would have direct access. With 110 mph service and electrification of the existing route, Fresno would have direct service to all points in less than 2 1/2 hours. Fresno and San Jose have become the “tails that wag the dog” in this issue. I estimate that HSR could still be directly routed through Bakersfield via an I-5 route, since that City is an important connection point.

    An I-5 route allows Bakersfield-Tracy service in 1 hour, 15 minutes at 220 mph, where 220 mph is needed to be competitive with flying. Allow another 45-50 minutes to either San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco and an hour to LA Union Station, the 2:40 minute running time can be achieved while avoiding most of the Peninsula NIMBY locations–and they’d still have good feeder service with an upgraded Caltrain.

    The main things driving the screwy, unachievable CAHSRA plan are the egos of Silicon Valley, a number of Valley cities like Fresno, and nefarious developers in places like the Antelope Valley.

    As a strong Democrat, I am appalled that shills like Cruickshank think we have to accept their overpriced B.S. and cronyism in order to get something useful.

    • Alon Levy

      Bakersfield is the harder one to serve if you’re using the Grapevine/Tejon – it’s much easier to swerve to its south and west, have a station about 20 km from city center, and continue north. Conversely, the construction impacts through Bakersfield are such that there is some local NIMBYism, though much less than in Palo Alto, and the cost is high enough they dropped it from the ICS. The point is that if you’re serving downtown Bakersfield, the additional cost of 99 rather than I-5 is reduced to a small fraction of the $15 billion (or more, I’m not sure) saving from the SNCF proposal.

      The ROW locations are also such that Palmdale pairs up well with a downtown station and the Grapevine with a peripheral station, though, Grapevine/downtown is much easier still than Palmdale/peripheral.

      • BruceMcF

        Further on above, a Tehachapi Pass Rapid Rail spur pairs up well with a local Bakersfield service on the same Rapid Rail corridor, terminating at the trunk line Bakersfield station. Through HST services on the Rapid Rail corridor would stop Bakersfield West and Bakersfield Central, the local could have additional stops between Bakersfield West main HSR and the east edge of town.

    • Setting Michael Straight

      Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County and southern San Mateo County) is a major business destination of comparable importance and greater population than the City and County of San Francisco + northern San Mateo County. Moreover, having rapid, direct SF-SJ connections would not only greatly relieve congestion on both 101 and 280, but provide huge benefits to everyone along the way, including the PAMPA residents who are trapped in the middle of the current congestion.

      As Alon correctly points out, HSR alignment within the Central Valley is not a major driver of cost, so blaming Fresno is also false.

      The Bay Area and Palmdale-Sylmar are places where value engineering could make a big difference in cost. A Tejon Pass alternative might also have such potential, but the advantages of using a right-of-way like Palmdale that has strong political support–especially among influential local Republicans–should not be dismissed out of hand.

      • Richard Mlynarik

        Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County and southern San Mateo County) is a major business destination of comparable importance and greater population than the City and County of San Francisco + northern San Mateo County

        Like, whatever.

        Hotel revenues 2011:

        San Francisco: 1539371
        San Diego: 1331129
        Los Angeles: 1036914
        San Jose: 187983
        Sacramento: 153597
        Monterey: 148421
        Santa Barbara: 124592
        Fresno: 70484
        Palo Alto: 68429
        Oakland: 68177
        Bakersfield: 57099
        Redwood City: 29943
        Palmdale: 26815
        Stockton: 22404
        Modesto: 18220
        Visalia: 17321
        Merced: 7175
        Gilroy: 9879
        Hanford: 3223

        187983 + 68429 + 29943 + 9879 = 19.2% of 1539371

        Try again. Actually, try even once. Actually, don’t even bother.

        • Try again

          Hotel revenues by city are apples and oranges for many reasons, including the following:

          1. San Francisco is a national and international tourist destination, most of whom would not be arriving in CA by HSR anyway. Tourists are much more likely to get a hotel room than day-tripping business travelers.
          2. Hotel costs in SF are much higher than in Silicon Valley.
          3. Silicon Valley is a major destination for business travelers.
          4. For people visiting the Bay Area from Southern California (whether for personal or business reasons), overnight stays are less likely since the return travel time is less than someone flying from the East Coast or internationally.
          5. San Jose has a smaller proportion of Silicon Valley’s population and jobs than San Francisco does of SF + northern San Mateo County.

          Even your own list shows that along the Phase 1 segment, San Jose is the #3 location in hotel revenue statewide.

          Richard, try again! Make sure to wipe your mouth after foaming :-/

          • Alon Levy

            The lack of centralization around San Jose in Silicon Valley is a drawback, not a benefit. It means people will have to rent a car or endure a long taxi ride from the station, which isn’t true of San Francisco. Go to OnTheMap and compare job density around Downtown San Jose (which is separated from Cahill Street by a freeway) and around the San Francisco CBD. The longer people have to drive from the station, the more the “I might as well drive the whole way” effect kills your mode share. Passengers tend to be more sensitive to access and egress time at the destination end than at the origin end.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            OK. So data don’t matter. Businessmen don’t need hotels, and tourists don’t ride HSR. And San José is the Paris of the West (source: Rod Diridon,)

            You have have a gut feeling for just how important it is to spend $20 billion on trains to the hollowed-out surface parking lot filled “downtown” of Silicon Valley.

            Facts are stupid things. 19.2% is just a number. $20 billion is just a number. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            More data (these per CSHRA commissioned survey; not, as I incorrectly stated earlier, MTC):


            Inter-regional business travelers into the SF Bay Area (don’t worry about the units, they’re relative):
            680: 4
            Far North Bay: 1
            Fremont:: 1
            North Bay: 7
            Peninsula: 6
            SF: 25
            SJ/SC 5
            Tri-Valley: 3
            Other: 1
            Total: 58

            SJ/SC is peanuts, and in no possible way could ever justify a dedicated line, either through Fremont or through Los Banos. (A shared line through Fremont, maybe, but they blew that off. Screw them.) 10% of the regional total. BFD! Maybe it might justify a $50m spend, but no way could anybody justify the multiple billions that SJ demands for its HSR ghost stop.

            Moreover, there is nothing in “downtown” SJ other than Adobe. Fremont and Redwood City (Fremont+Peninsula+SC beats SJ) are as close or closer to the action. (Look at a map, people. Look at aerials.) Cars can be rented in places other than Diridon Intergalactic. And not only will “downtown” have its own Big City Subway, but it’s chock-full of empty parking lots and crossed by a pile of elevated freeways. I’m sure the eleven annual Adobe visitors who’ll be taking HSR from Fresno will be able to find their way from some other station, somehow or other.

            In case you’re interested, the much larger “non-business” inter-regional numbers are far worse for the Capital of Silicon Valley:
            680; 23
            Far East Bay: 27
            SJ/SC: 28
            SF: 121
            North Bay: 46
            Oakland/Berkeley: 36
            [some other peanuts we won’t bother with]
            Total: 346

            It would make more sense to build a dedicated tourist HSR line to Napa for than for business to SJ!

            SJ/SC (remembering that SC is easy to get to from either Redwood or Fremont) is less than 8% of the inter-regional travel total.
            Oakland/Berkeley spanks it with over 10%.
            The 7×7 miles of SF? 36%

            Get real. The business travel need to greater SJ is as more imaginary than real, and the demand to “downtown” is completely fictitious.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Silicon Valley is obviously very important, but not enough to justify a station in San Jose (and I am obviously a supporter of Altamont). Santa Clara County is simply too spread out. Tell me, what is a hypothetical traveler from SoCal on a trip to Apple HQ supposed to do? Take HSR to Diridon, then what? Hop on the 22 to Fair Oaks then take the 55? Walk to San Carlos and take the 23, then transfer at De Anza Blvd to the 55? “Silicon Valley” isn’t synonymous with downtown San Jose. I’m also having problems imagining a car rental garage (even half hte size of SJC’s) fitting into the area around Diridon, along with increased parking. An Altamont connection with electrified Caltrain would help out a lot more than trying to squeeze HSR in through the heart of Santa Clara County.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Major Silicon Valley businesses/entities not located in downtown San Jose:

        Electronic Arts
        Stanford Research Institute
        Stanford University
        Hewlett Packard
        Lockheed Martin
        Microsoft Silicon Valley Campus

        Major Silicon Valley businesses located in downtown SJ:


        Lets also take a refresher on how shitty the VTA is to actually get around to most of those businesses, and how much people rely on employee commuter shuttles (like at Caltrain stations) or rental cars to actually get to them-putting an HSR station in downtown SJ makes zero sense for “connecting to Silicon Valley,” to anyone who actually has firsthand knowledge of what “Silicon Valley” is.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          I suppose I could add Nasa/Ames and the VC firms on Sandhill road in that list too.

    • BruceMcF

      “With 110 mph service and electrification of the existing route, Fresno would have direct service to all points in less than 2 1/2 hours. ”

      So include the cost of that in the estimate of the I-5 project cost ~ an Express HSR service along the I-5 and Rapid Rail spur through Fresno. Compared to the 99 route on the same terms ~ not SNCF estimates of I5 Express HSR and 99 Rapid Rail vs PB estimates of 99 Express HSR, but SNCF estimates of I5 Express HSR and 99 Rapid Rail vs SNCF estimates of 99 Express HSR.

      It seems certain that the Tejon Pass Express HSR with a Rapid Rail diversion over the Tehcachapi Pass would be cheaper than the Tehachapi Pass Express HSR alone ~ for one thing, a single Rapid Rail track through Bakersfield would suffice ~ and since it would save time for both the Bay/Basin markets and Fresno/Basin markets, would likely have higher ridership than the Tehachapi Pass Express HSR alone. So there’s a spur that saves money on a real basis of comparable intercity transport service being provided.

      But I haven’t seen any argument from I5 Express HSR proponents that the I5 Express HSR plus a 99 Rapid Rail spur together would be cheaper than 99 Express HSR alone, as alternatives built designed and built by similarly thieving contractors stealing on similar terms. Lacking that argument, it sounds like the pedestrian observation that its a cheaper capital cost to provide less service to fewer people with less total economic benefit than to provide more service to more people with more total economic benefit.

      • Adirondacker12800

        How many miles is this rapid rail corridor from Santa Clarita to Bakersfield via Palmdale then onto Fresno and Los Banos? Guestimating with Google road mileages I come up with roughly 300 miles.

        • BruceMcF

          They are two distinct alignment options ~ going Express HSR on a Tejon Pass alignment with a Rapid Rail corridor via Palmdale, as opposed to Express HSR via Palmdale, and Express HSR on the 99 alignment vs going Express HSR up the I5 with a Rapid Rail corridor by Bakersfield and through Fresno. The first option is still alive, the second one is a moot point with Express HSR from Madera to northwest of Bakersfield funded.

      • Nathanael

        “It seems certain that the Tejon Pass Express HSR with a Rapid Rail diversion over the Tehcachapi Pass would be cheaper than the Tehachapi Pass Express HSR alone ~ for one thing, a single Rapid Rail track through Bakersfield would suffice”

        OK, this is a serious idea. If this actually would work, it seems viable.

        The hard part is getting out of the San Fernando Valley, either way.

  9. Beta Magellan

    Alon and Steve: Was SNCF’s West-of-99/I-5 proposal still going to use Pacheco, or has that not been mentioned?

    • Alon Levy

      I have not seen it mentioned, either. Stephen’s asking, but the presumption is that the proposal uses the Grapevine and Altamont. Given that the SMA plan from last year used Palmdale and Altamont, I’d be seriously surprised if SNCF went with Pacheco, especially since Pacheco’s main redeeming feature, frequency, is something SNCF doesn’t care about.

    • Stephen Smith

      “Initially it was thought [ed.: by SNCF America] that convincing the Authority to use Altamont and Grapevine passes was all that would be needed. I-5 only came along when it became clear to all involved (halfway through 2010) that the [ed.: west-of-]99 route was unworkable, partly because PB was stirring up trouble on every mile of it.”

      • Miles Bader

        Also, “stirring up trouble” is very odd wording if they’re the lead consultant (now that I know who they are :)… I’d kinda like to know what that actually means…

        • anonymouse

          Generally, publicly announcing grand plans for other people’s property and train lines, without asking or even telling them about it privately first. This doesn’t win you friends among the likes of Union Pacific, which already isn’t too kindly disposed to the whole idea of passenger rail.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            The more unethical sort of consultancy or agency might do things like, say, pass on information about potential impacts of the “alternative” they have decided to eliminate, putting words in the ears of Civic Fathers and Interested CItizens, perhaps passing on internal documents long before public release, while downplaying the impacts of the fore-ordained solution that they decided long in advance, for their own reasons, would be what the public agency should “choose” and the public should pay for.

            The impacts of the “chosen” “alternative” leak out gradually, and at first only to those skilled in reading between the lines (“conspiracy theorists”, “NIMBYs”, “scientifically literate”, “numerate”, “not stupid”, etc), well after the “decision” has been made, well after “planning is too advanced to rehash old issues” and years after “you had you chance to express your Public Input.” Better luck next time!

          • Nathanael

            There is some evidence (not much, but some) that “following existing transportation corridors” is not actually helping contain the NIMBY explosions.

            It usually does help, most places, so it’s a natural mistake for the CHSRA to make.

            We can’t actually tell whether it helped because we don’t live in the alternate universe where an entirely greenfield-routed proposal was mooted back in 2004.

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  11. Wad

    @Adirondacker12800, the Budget kiosk, along with Hertz, is in Union Station itself. Also, it’s a courtesy of many a car rental agency to come pick you up in a car and the agent will either bring you to the office or have the paperwork ready waiting for you.

    The Budget/Hertz kiosk is a premium service, so you pay more for a rental and you might not be able to save by calling an in-town rental office, which is generally cheaper.

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  13. Pingback: California’s Mismanaged High-Speed Rail Project Must End - California Political Review

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